30 July 2011

What does proof reading prove?

The second annual review from the UK’s Government Office for Science lets itself down with sloppy proofreading. 
What do we make of a document that tells us that “the GCSA met with senior officials from organsiations such as the World Bank, USAID and the National Academy of Sciences to disucss opportunities for UK-US collaboration and cooperation”? Yes. Those spelling mistakes really are in there, buried towards the end of The Government Office for Science Annual Review 2010-11.

At one time, the UK’s Office for Science and Technology, as it was before someone thought it trendy to turn it into the Government Office for Science – GO-Science, get it? – hired people to weed out  such sloppiness. Sometimes, there were capable writers and editors in house who cared about these things.

A disclaimer here, I was one of several people who earned a bob or two working on documents for the OST and other departments, before the coalition government decided that all consultants were evil and expensive and should never darken its doors. But this isn’t just a whinge about lost opportunities to bid for work. It is about the message that an organisation sends out by releasing poorly edited material like this.

No one expects literary masterpieces from a chief scientist or anyone else in government but you do expect some attention to detail. Isn’t that what science is about?

Mistakes like these are an invitation to look more closely at the document itself. Sadly, it begins to fail as soon as you do so. What, for example, do we make of the notion that GO-Science is there to “strengthen confidence in climate science”?

What on earth is confidence in climate change? Do they mean confidence that it is happening? Confidence that the government knows what to do about it?
Scope for improvement
Then there is the inevitable lapse into policy speak. What does they do when they “scope potential future developments in technology”?

That  one can take some unravelling. First there is the “scope” bit. My now slightly aged copy of Collins English Dictionary doesn’t like the idea that scope is a verb. Even the current on-line version agrees and has the fuddy duddy notion that scope is a noun.

Perhaps GO-Science means anticipate maybe even investigate. It could even be “think about”, or is that too colloquial for such a high minded bit of the government?

How about the next bit, “potential future developments”? What is the “future” doing in there? I can’t think of any way in which someone could study, let alone scope, potential past developments: potential developments in technology says it all.

Here’s a few more: “GO-Science participated in Exercise Watermark, a national exercise to asses the UK response to flooding.” Please, no jokes about beasts of burden please or rear ends of North Americans. Funnily enough, they get it right several times, so someone must know how to spell assess.

You can’t say that about “phenomonon” which appears just once. They shouldn’t have used the word anyway. At least, not in the sentence “Scientists, planners and emergency managers from around the globe discussed their concerns and the risks this phenomonon poses to societal and economic well-being and national security.” It would have been better to have said  “space weather”, which is what that paragraph is about. And what is “societal and economic well-being”?

We could go on about other spelling gaffes and the inconsistent use of capitals – as in government and Government – not to mention a layout that manages to separate headings from the associated text, but what the heck? They have never been good at that sort of think in any government department.
GO-Science also worries about Influenza and influenza. The Government Chief Scientific Adviser “has continued to engage with UK pandemic influenza preparedness”.  How do you engage with preparedness?

We also read that “December 2010 was the coldest recorded for some years”. Coldest what? December? Month? Temperature?

The sad bit is that one of the better, and mostly widely read, guides to clear writing started life as a government document. The Complete Plain Words, by Sir Ernest Gowers and Revised by Sir Bruce Fraser, showed that even knights of the realm could string a few words together. At one time, HSMO published this book. But that venerable institution, which also used to help the government to make sense, joined many other fine agencies on the bonfire in the slash and burn of privatisation and “outsourcing”.

One final nit to pick, whoever turned the document into a PDF file pressed the wrong buttons and managed to use a font, Velvenda Cooler, that chucks up an error when you open the file.
Questions of meaning
A decent editor doesn’t just pick up typographical errors. They also question the meaning where it is unclear, trying to decipher the use of phrases like “engage with preparedness”, for example.
A good editor also picks up howlers of the “security needs of the 2010 Olympic Games” variety. Did I miss something? I hope so.

It may be that in the days of text messages and Twitter, the English language has become a joke. There are some of us, though, who still think that it is important to have white papers, reports and other documents that make sense to the largest number of people. You don’t achieve that with poor editing.
Sloppy presentation of the type that pervades this document, which should be the highlight of the year for GO-Science, really isn’t much help. If nothing else, it could provoke readers with grammatical sensitivities to throw the document across the room. That would be a pity. It does have one or two interesting leads. I was particularly taken by the short bit on the Royal Academy of Engineering’s plans to get at people in the civil service with a background in engineering. But that will have to wait for another day.

PS This rant has a major shortcoming. Like most blogs, it has not come under the eye of a subeditor. So there is no guarantee that it is error free. But at least it has had the benefit of being written with software that has a spell checker. I even had to tell it to ignore the "deliberate" errors lifted from the report. The ubiquity of that technology makes it all the more puzzling that documents can escape from the government with so many errors.

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